European Affairs

Ireland Moves Ahead on Marriage Equality     Print Email
By Sarah Geraghty, Columnist for The Irish Times

 
sarah geraghty1Since I began to write the wedding column in The Irish Times last February, three of the 70 couples featured were gay.
 
All were Irish people living abroad who didn’t have the right to marry the ones they loved in their native country.
Until now.
 
On Friday, May 23rd 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by (very) popular vote.
 
With a turnout of 60.5%, two-thirds voted Yes. 
 
The country woke up on Saturday, May 24th, with early tallies indicating that the ‘Yes’ (‘Tá’ in Gaelic) vote was romping home and an email arrived from a 44-year old Irish woman living in California, whose wedding to her partner of 20 years had featured in the column.
 
“I’m sitting in the dark at 3:00 am our time. Tears are streaming down my face at the news of a possible landslide for the ‘Yes’ vote.  Everyone now wants us to come home and have an Irish wedding. So if that happens, I will let you know. Hurray for Ireland. I've never been more proud. And never been more homesick.”
 
I thought of the Irish man in his late fifties living in the UK who converted his civil partnership to marriage in 2014 when it was legalized there.
 
“Neither of us believed that we would ever get married. Growing up in Ireland I truly never thought that a day would come that I could have a wedding day. But here we are, married and happy.”
 
A close friend, a 31-year old Irish man, Facetimed from Australia where he now lives. 
 
On his social media feeds he could see the carnival atmosphere building in the capital city. Huge, exuberant crowds were gathering in the balmy sunshine at Dublin Castle, one of the main count centres and where the official result was announced.
 
My faraway friend felt disconnected and wanted to know what it was like in his native city on that electric day.
 
Mostly, he wanted to share the news that his mother had called that morning to tell him she had voted ‘Yes.’ Until then, he didn’t know what way she’d go. He was a bit scared to ask.
 
This was a landmark step in his long, emotional, exhausting journey of coming out and striving for acceptance. His conservative, Catholic mother ticked Yes/Tá in the ballot box. It was a bigger deal than the marriage itself.
 
For Ireland’s LGBT people (all too aware that homosexual acts were illegal until 1993), it meant, said another friend:
 
“For the first time, the country is telling us, ‘you belong. You’re one of us. We’re all the same. That’s all we want. That’s all any human being wants.”
 
Yes Equality, the Campaign for Civil Marriage Equality – alongside coordinated campaigns from political parties, trade unions, business and civic organizations, writers, sports stars, celebrities - tapped into the broad message of ‘belonging’ and equality from the beginning of a campaign that grew out of a 2013 citizens’ convention on constitutional change. 
 
This referendum wasn’t just about ‘them’; it was about all of us. It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make Ireland more equal. And we were all responsible.
 
Go-to questions were simple: “How will you tell your children and grandchildren that you voted in this referendum? Will you tell them you voted for everyone to be equal?”
 
The ‘Straight Up For Equality’ campaign gave heterosexuals the opportunity to actively support their gay friends, family members, colleagues and not just give them a pat on the back, wish them good luck and leave them to fight alone.
 
They went further than just slapping a trendy Twibbon on their Facebook and Twitter profile pictures declaring they were Straight Up For Equality.
 
Thousands of volunteers of all ages ran marathons, baked cakes and sold t-shirts to raise funds. They organized their own canvassing groups, knocked on doors and pounded the pavements and country lanes of our rainy nation for weeks, engaging their families and communities in conversations about equality, belonging and love. 
 
They extended their reach beyond young, educated, cosmopolitan Dubliners.
 
They talked to people who said they wouldn’t vote because their own lives would remain unaffected whatever way it swung; who didn’t feel they had a place in the debate; who believed the ‘No’ campaigners’ claims that it was a referendum about religion, surrogacy, artificial human reproduction, and adoption rights; who feared a ‘Yes’ vote was a vote for the destabilization of the family and society.
 
They reached out to conservative and traditional older voters, using personal stories from gay children and parents of gay children and talked to a generation wary of change, a bit hazy on the issues at hand, and unfamiliar with a perceived lifestyle.
 
Students at Trinity College Dublin initiated the #RingYourGranny campaign where they called their grandparents to talk about the referendum.  We were able to listen in and hear some deeply moving conversations. 
 
A father of two women in their late 20s said that he would have voted ‘No’ had it not been for conversations with his daughters and getting to know their LGBT friends over the years. “It was only when I got to know them through the girls that I understood how tough it must have been for them growing up.”
 
Gay people of all ages, from all backgrounds sacrificed their privacy by presenting themselves for interview, re-opened old wounds, and allowed themselves to be dissected, analysed and voted on.
 
Prime Minister Enda Kenny talked about his journey towards accepting same-sex marriage. In January, Health Minister Leo Varadkar came out as gay. Former President Mary McAleese referred to her son – who himself wrote openly about coming out nine years ago - in powerful and moving speeches. 
 
And in the week coming up to polling day, the power of social media was evident in all its glory when the #HomeToVote movement started trending on Twitter.
 
More than 27,000 tweets were sent using that hashtag, everyone’s newsfeeds hopping with photos of Irish people living abroad queuing in train stations, bus stations, ports and airports, anything to make it home on time to vote.
 
In the end, out of 43 constituencies, only one said ‘No’.
 
Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, told Ireland’s national TV and radio broadcaster, RTE: "I think really the church needs to do a reality check...I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day, that they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live. I think it is a social revolution."
 
Less than a month later, another piece of history was made with the first formal announcement of a same-sex engagement in the long-established Social and Personal column of The Irish Times. 
 
The parents of Leo O'Shaughnessy (44) and Mark Kinsella (43), partners of 20 years, announced “with delight” their sons’ engagement.  
 
The couple – who decided against Civil Partnership when it was introduced here in 2010 because, “we want what everyone has and if we couldn’t have that, we were happy the way we were… but for us it wouldn’t have been enough” – plan to wed in 2016. And to share the story in the column when the time comes around.  
 
On 25th May, Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald declared her intention to seek Government approval for the Marriage Bill 2015 as soon as possible. 
 
As of 1st July 2015, the Bill had been delayed - due to a High Court case which that court and the Court of Appeal later rejected – but legislation will be presented in the new Dáil Éireann (Irish Assembly) term which begins on 22nd September. The first legal same-sex marriages in the State could happen before the end of the year but are most likely to be in early in 2016. 
 
“We have woken up to a new Ireland,” read the headlines that beamed around the world the day after we voted Yes. And we had.
 
After a few challenging years, we had regained our pride.